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Iraqi assassins are being asked to take aim at hundreds of intellectuals whose names appear on a hit list circulating in the country by an unknown group.

The list's existence suggests that the ongoing assassination of Iraqi academics is more organised and systematic than previously thought.

Leaflets calling for the murder of 461 named individuals were described in an article published last month by the newspaper Az-Zaman.

The US-based magazine Science reports today (30 June) that it has obtained a copy of the list, verified as authentic by several Iraqi scientists.

It names scientists, university officials, engineers, doctors and journalists in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

Since the invasion of Iraq in April 2003, the number of attacks on academics has risen steadily. The death toll is difficult to determine, but estimates range from 200 to over 1,000 (See Nearly 200 Iraqi academics killed since 2003).

The authors of the hit list are unknown. Iraqi investigators are looking at claims that Iranian intelligence agents are involved, reports Science.

Also unknown are the motives for the killings, but religious and political sectarianism appear to be playing a significant role.

Former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party are implicated in the killings as assassins, while some scientists associated with the old regime have been murdered in apparent acts of revenge.

Meanwhile, Sunni militias are targeting Shiite academics, and vice versa.

Money is certainly a motivating factor behind many attacks, as kidnappers often demand a ransom before they commit a murder, reported Nature yesterday (29 June).

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, an Iraqi microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, told Nature that the insurgency has undermined much-needed university construction efforts "beyond belief".

More than 2,000 scientists are thought to have fled Iraq. Those staying put are trying to keep the universities open, but the killings — which usually happen on their way to and from work — are unlikely to stop soon.

Link to full article in Science*

Link to full article in Nature

* This link will be made available later today (30 June 2006).